By every metric – from human casualties and conflict-induced displacement of civilians to poverty levels and job losses – Myanmar’s February 2021 military power grab has been a disaster of epic proportions, with the situation worsening by the day.
The military takeover also killed off Myanmar’s decade-old peace process, dealing a final blow to negotiations that were already moribund, largely due to the unwillingness of the military and Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) government to make meaningful concessions to the country’s many ethnic armed groups.
Amid the tragedy unfolding in Myanmar, a new dialogue has emerged: potentially transformative negotiations towards a genuinely federal state between political leaders from the majority Bamar and ethnic minorities, including several of the country’s most important ethnic armed groups.
In the immediate aftermath of the coup, most ethnic leaders believed this was not their fight. Despite their enmity with the military, they were disillusioned after years of failed peace talks, and in no mood to help put Aung San Suu Kyi back in power.
But the popular uprising against military rule, fueled by the regime’s violence against peaceful demonstrators, quickly shifted the equation. Outraged, ethnic communities – many of which voted for the NLD – joined the mass protests, compelling some ethnic armed groups to take a stand. Remaining neutral would have put their credibility at risk with their constituencies, and they risked being eclipsed by newly formed militias taking on the military.
The prospect of a united front against the junta, bringing together the country’s multitude of ethnic armed groups and the National Unity Government (NUG) created by elected lawmakers leading the opposition to the junta, remains unlikely given the legacy of mistrust and variety of interests among ethnic groups. Some of the most powerful ones have continued to remain aloof from the insurrection engulfing the rest of the country, seeing it as not in their interests to join the fray. But at least four of them have now become important partners of the NUG: the Karen National Union, the Kachin Independence Organization, the Karenni National Progressive Party, and the Chin National Front.
Their participation in the anti-regime movement is motivated not only by a desire to maintain relevance and primacy, however. From the start, they have made clear that cooperation would be dependent on reaching political agreements. This led the parallel administration to come up with a two-part Federal Democracy Charter which, released in late March, goes far beyond what the NLD had been willing to offer to ethnic armed groups under the peace process.
These negotiations have not always been easy. Through the middle of last year, difficulties emerged over what some of the groups perceived as the domineering role of old guard NLD figures leading the opposition movement. These concerns remain, and cooperation with the NUG remains fragile.
The military regime has also made its own overtures to try to bring some of the ethnic armed groups to its side. Immediately after seizing power, junta leader Min Aung Hlaing formed a new peace negotiating team and sought talks with ethnic leaders, and has since managed to keep some on the sidelines of the conflict.
But as resistance to the regime in minority areas has grown, the military has responded with brutal tactics – from the torching of Thantlang in Chin State and shelling of Lay Kay Kaw in Kayin State, to the massacre of at least 31 civilians in Kayah State on Christmas Eve. This has only served to push ethnic armed groups in these areas closer to the opposition.
These actions also reinforce the hollowness of Min Aung Hlaing’s New Year announcement of peace talks with ethnic armed groups, which he then reiterated in a meeting with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen in Naypyidaw on January 7.
If this wasn’t clear enough, the day after Min Aung Hlaing met Hun Sen and announced the extension of a unilateral ceasefire through to the end of the year, the military began shelling and launching airstrikes against Loikaw, prompting thousands to flee the Kayah State capital.
These offensives seem designed to push ethnic leaders back to the negotiating table and split the tentative alliance some have formed with the NUG. It’s a tactic that worked for the previous junta in the early 1990s, but will be much more difficult to execute this time. This is not only because of the shift in public sentiment, and the significant political, social, and economic changes of the past 30 years, but also because older ethnic armed groups are fighting alongside new resistance militias formed since the coup, such as the People’s Defense Force, Chinland Defense Force, and Karenni Nationalities Defense Force.
Alongside the growing cooperation between the NUG and ethnic armed groups, an equally important shift has taken place in Myanmar society due to the coup – one that is potentially even more significant for the country’s future.
For decades, the military castigated ethnic armed groups and their supporters as “secessionists,” claiming they were intent on destroying the Myanmar state, and positioning itself as the force holding the country together in the face of this existential threat. Even after most of them had reached ceasefires, they were still derided as “spoilers” in the country’s peace process.
With most among the majority Bamar community having no direct experience of the ethnic conflicts, which were taking place in the border regions, and relatively little understanding of ethnic minorities’ grievances, this propaganda took root among large portions of the population.
But now that the military is shooting protesters dead in the streets, torturing opponents to death, staging show trials of elected leaders, and employing its brutal counterinsurgency strategies in Bamar areas, they view the military as the problem. This has led to a newfound empathy for the struggle of ethnic minorities within the majority Bamar community – including, to some extent, the Rohingya Muslim community, who many viewed as illegal immigrants prior to the coup.
Given the present level of violence, and the military’s determination to crush all resistance, it is hard to be optimistic about Myanmar’s future. The most probable scenario at this point is a protracted stalemate, with devastating humanitarian consequences.
But we should also not overlook the important changes that have taken place over the past year – changes that could help to redefine relations between the majority Bamar and minorities.